Phosphorylation of the coronavirus nucleoprotein (N protein) has been predicted to play a role in RNA binding. To investigate this hypothesis, we examined the kinetics of RNA binding between nonphosphorylated and phosphorylated infectious bronchitis virus N protein with nonviral and viral RNA by surface plasmon resonance (Biacore). Mass spectroscopic analysis of N protein identified phosphorylation sites that were proximal to RNA binding domains. Kinetic analysis, by surface plasmon resonance, indicated that nonphospborylated N protein bound with the same affinity to viral RNA as phosphorylated N protein. However, phosphorylated N protein bound to viral RNA with a higher binding affinity than nonviral RNA, suggesting that phosphorylation of N protein determined the recognition of virus RNA. The data also indicated that a known N protein binding site (involved in transcriptional regulation) consisting of a conserved core sequence present near the 5' end of the genome (in the leader sequence) functioned by promoting high association rates of N protein binding. Further analysis of the leader sequence indicated that the core element was not the only binding site for N protein and that other regions functioned to promote high-affinity binding.